Before I got married I was single for 28 years, and I learned a lot during that time. One lesson? That it can be horribly lonely as a single person in the church, especially given the popular teachings about marital boundaries.

Although I respect every married couple's right to define boundaries in their own way, these boundaries can be painful. As a single woman I often felt like a sexual object to be handled like fire. I grieved the loss of male friends who, rather than invite me into friendship with their wives, ended our friendship altogether.

Because of these experiences, I wanted my marriage to be different. After we became engaged, my then-fiance and I thought long and hard about how to do friendship Christianly. I never wanted another woman to feel the way I had, and I wanted our marriage to be marked by hospitality. Rather than stifle friendship, I hoped that our marriage would be life-giving to the relationships around us.

I believe my husband and I have succeeded in our goal, but it hasn't been easy. As we have searched for examples, we have found that the married person's approach to cross-gender friendship tends to err in one of two ways, neither of which we wanted to replicate.

The first error is a model of friendship heavily shaped by the doctrine of sin. In other words, cross-gender friendships are treated primarily as sources of temptation. Women tend to bear the brunt of this negative approach, although men do not fare well either. According to this approach, men must be honest about their fallen sexual desires and act appropriately. To avoid even a hint of evil, these men refuse to engage in all one-on-one contact with women. No being in a room alone together, and no riding alone in a car together.

I am sympathetic to this perspective to an extent. Some of the men who teach this philosophy are visible leaders with vibrant ministries. Marital infidelity (even an accusation of such) would not only destroy a marriage but devastate thousands of church members as well. When a leader has that much influence, he is sure to be the target of spiritual attacks, so it is right to take sin seriously.

Nevertheless, the language of this approach is sometimes difficult to square with the doctrine of imago dei, or even a healthy ecclesiology. Rather than treat women as sisters in Christ—emphasis on sisters—they are reduced to objects of sexual desire.

It is because of this popular approach to male-female relationships that an alternative approach to friendship has arisen. In contrast with the prior model, this second one is primarily shaped by the doctrines of grace and redemption.

Article continues below

According to this second view, we need not fear cross-gender friendships. We can approach one another in confidence and full-embrace, following the example of Jesus himself, who apparently welcomed cross-gender friendships. Such friendships pose no threat to our marriages, and can actually strengthen them.

The strength of this latter approach to friendship is that it addresses a real problem in Christian circles. We are tired of treating men like dogs who only see women through sex goggles, and women are tired of being treated like sexual objects. There is a desire for real Christian friendship in the church, and this approach has tapped into that desire on the basis of legitimate scriptural arguments.

That strength aside, this approach has gone awry in its understanding of marriage and Christian freedom. One of the main proponents of it, a married man, touts his friendship with a single woman, a woman with whom he spends frequent alone time and even vacations without his wife. Other supporters of this approach, also married, have cross-gender "best friends" who are not their spouses. This, they believe, is not only healthy but also biblical.

I have great concerns about this approach. Although it is far less common than the first, it is quietly gaining momentum with a small segment of evangelicalism. That said, I would issue a strong warning about it. It appeals to anyone who has been hurt by legalistic approaches to friendship, or who simply desires a more holistic approach to friendship, but this is not a healthy or biblical model of cross-gender friendship.

I take this stance on both scriptural and theological grounds. Although the former approach to friendship lacks a robust doctrine of grace, the latter approach lacks a robust doctrine of sin and marriage. Regarding sin, we exist in a state of already and not yet: Christ has already come to redeem the world, but that redemption has not yet been fully realized. That said, we are not living in Eden so we must grapple with the reality of sin in this world. While sin cannot be more determinative of our lives than Christ's victory over sin, we cannot ignore sin's influence either.

Regarding marriage, Scripture is clear that when the two become one flesh, they model the dyad of Christ's relationship with the church, not the triad of the Trinity. And while this new approach argues that Scripture contains platonic examples of deeply intimate friendships, the only clear examples are of same-gender friendships (ie. David and Jonathan, Ruth and Naomi, or Jesus and "the beloved disciple"). Their conclusions about Jesus' friendship with Mary Magdalene are speculative at best (not to mention that both Jesus and Mary were single).

Article continues below

I won't pretend that, because of my negative experience with married friends, my husband and I take an "anything goes" approach to friendship. He is my best friend and chief confidant, and we do have boundaries. But we have worked hard to establish boundaries that honor God's design for marriage and respect the power of sin while enjoying the freedom of God's grace. This balance is essential. When too much emphasis is placed on sin, we will produce unnecessary rules that not only mangle relationships in the church and shame one another, while resulting in the kind of "over-corrections" we are witnessing now.

But likewise, an overemphasis on grace without enough acknowledgement of sin is apt to tempt believers unnecessarily, lull the saints into a false sense of security, and undermine the unique design of marriage.